Financial crisis puts Wall Street back under the movie spotlight

The scandal-ridden financial sector doesn't expect new films to show its good side

When Hollywood meets Wall Street, two worlds collide in a tectonic rumble of mutual loathing. A series of finance-themed movies will shortly hit big screens – and America's money-making elite are resigned to a bashing on camera.

As if the banking industry didn't have enough reputational problems, the poster boy for financial corruption, Gordon Gekko, is about to return. Played by Michael Douglas, the fictional star of Oliver Stone's 1987 hit movie Wall Street is back for a long-awaited sequel – Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – and he minces few words about what he finds: "Somebody reminded me I once said 'greed is good'. Now, it seems, it's legal."

Gekko isn't the only big-screen critic for financiers to worry about. A documentary called Inside Job, by the Oscar-nominated producer Chris Ferguson, comes out next month with a narration by Matt Damon, containing interviews on the credit crunch with top financiers and academics such as George Soros, Nouriel Roubini and Barney Frank. It is safe to predict that Ferguson will not be kind to Wall Street.

On top of that, there's an unemployment-themed feature film, Company Men, starring Ben Affleck as an innocent victim of brutal layoffs by ruthless business chiefs.

And Client 9, a documentary about the rise and fall of the one-time sheriff of Wall Street, Eliot Spitzer, will drop dark hints about manoeuvring by high financiers in the public exposure of the former New York governor's penchant for call girls.

None of these are likely to shine a flattering light on Wall Street but many in the financial industry are phlegmatic. Scott Talbott, a spokesman for the US Financial Services Roundtable, says that anything aiding comprehension of the financial world is a positive: "An understanding of how Wall Street works is beneficial to America and the economy. Done properly, there's a plus in anything that sheds a light on the industry."

For some, though, there is a question mark over whether Oliver Stone is a helpful practitioner of the art of financial illumination. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Stone declared that financiers, like all humans, are "a mixed bag of good and bad" but could not resist a shot at Wall Street's wealthiest bank.

"It's silly to be simplifying and say Wall Street is evil," said Stone. He paused, then added: "Goldman Sachs is evil, maybe."

Other banks rank higher in Stone's world view – scenes from his movie were shot on the New York trading floor of Royal Bank of Canada and the director has praised that financial institution for "behaving impeccably". Some 80 RBC employees found their way on to the screen as extras.

Tension

The trailer for Money Never Sleeps plays to a soundtrack of the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil, which is hardly a subtle detail of positioning.

Larry Ribstein, a University of Illinois professor who has researched the portrayal of business on the cinema screen, says a tradition of Hollywood anti-capitalism dates back many decades. He cites a 1933 movie, Dinner at Eight, as an early example in which an obnoxious, uncouth financier tries to seize control of a shipping company run by a man of old-style grace and manners.

"I do think Hollywood has an innately skewed view, particularly of capitalists and financiers," says Ribstein, whose research throws up scores of examples of honourable people battling big, bad corporate misfeasance – ranging from Erin Brockovich to Michael Clayton, The Insider, Blood Diamond and the Constant Gardener.

Ribstein believes that this point of view reflects a real-world tension between creative artists and financial artisans: "Movie-makers do depend on capital to make their movies but they view the constraints that capital puts on them as an undue limitation on their artistic freedom."

However tempting it may be to take pot-shots at business, the true gamble for film studios is whether finance can truly be a box-office draw. It is a tough call, in an ongoing economic slump, to encourage punters to pay to watch an unemployment-themed movie. There is little escapism to be found in such a painfully topical subject. Studios have struggled similarly to draw crowds for films about the Iraq war which, however critically acclaimed, have failed to excel in ticket sales.

"You can have movies that are topical but come too soon – when the wound is too fresh – as it was after 9/11," says Paul Dergarabedian, a box-office expert at the website Hollywood.com. "In the wake of the global recession, the question is 'how soon is too soon' to talk about Wall Street."

Money Never Sleeps had its first outing at the Cannes film festival in May. The New York premiere will be held on Wednesday at Manhattan's Ziegfeld Theatre – a midtown venue, a safe distance from the financial district.

All things considered, it would be reasonable to assume that the top ranks of Wall Street's pinstriped elite will not be fighting for a coveted ticket.

Contributor

Andrew Clark

The GuardianTramp

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